For college seniors, spring graduation may seem far away, but the reality of finishing school and having to look for that first job in an economy that is slowly growing out of a recession will arrive all too soon.
The time is now to start laying the groundwork for your first career steps, starting with taking a good look in the "metaphorical mirror," says Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University and author of "The Secret to Getting a Job After College."
"Ask yourself, what do you really like to do and what are you good at?" says Chiagouris. "Don't limit your choices. People think I'm a communications major--I'm going to go on job interviews for newspapers and ad agencies. If you're a communications major, your skills are in demand across a wide range of job opportunities."
Remember the more you do now in terms of gaining experience, readying your resume and lining up references, the more prepared you will be for the real world.
Here are eight steps you can take this fall to get a jump on your job search:
1. Clean up your online image
Prospective employers will use online tools to find out everything they can about you, so you should make your own sweep first, says Rich Milgram, CEO of career network website Beyond.com.
Be sure privacy settings on Facebook and other social networks are set to limit access to people with whom you are directly linked. Use Google and Bing to search for your name to find out what turns up--whether it's profile pictures, candid snapshots, Twitter names or an embarrassing photo from last week's frat party.
"This type of online reputation audit will give you insight into what employers can learn about you," Milgram says.
2. Hang out at career services
One of your regular campus stops should be your college or university career center, where you will find resources for resume writing, interviewing skills, listings for internships and full-time jobs, and ways to connect with alumni.
"The career office helps you focus--the biggest problem is students don't focus," Chiagouris says.
3. Don't use a "cookie cutter" resume
As helpful as sample resumes and cover letters can be, they should be used as a template from which you can develop your own pitch, says Suzie Boland, president of RFB Communications Group in Tampa, Fla. One page is plenty of space for someone who's just graduated from college, she advises.
"I once received five copies of the same basic cover letter with 'cookie cutter' resumes from students at one university," Boland says. "You need to stand out in a good way from the others and demonstrate your individual attributes."
4. Get the 411 from an employer
Typos, misspellings and punctuation mistakes are the kiss of death to a resume. Ask a family friend, mentor or former employer to read your resume with a critical eye, looking not only for obvious mistakes, but for clarity and content issues as well. Another set of eyes can also help you decide what should stay and what should go in your resume.
"Most hiring managers don't care for a lot of detail about your college activities unless they're specific to your career aspirations," Boland explains.
5. Ask for references now
Don't wait until graduation day to hit up your favorite professor or an administrator for a reference. He or she could be away on sabbatical or could turn you down, so you need time to arrange for backups.
"If you go cold in the spring, you may be disappointed--you may not have as many (references) as you thought," Chiagouris says.
6. Play the Kevin Bacon game
Understand the power of six degrees of separation, says career advisor Debra Condren, author of "Ambition Is Not a Dirty Word." More than eight in 10 jobs are found via networking and word-of-mouth, so don't be shy about asking your parents, professors, family friends and former bosses to connect you to two or three of their contacts.
"When you then act on these leads, start with the door-opening name, and then get right to the point," Condren says.
7. Internships = opportunities
An internship, whether paid or not, will give you critical, real-world experience and help you narrow your interests. "It will put you a cut above graduates who haven't done this, and you might even be offered a job," Boland says.
An internship will also add heft to your resume, and according to a study released last May by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workfoce Development at Rutgers University, internships can also lead to higher salaries. Students who had internships or relevant work experience during college earned roughly 20 percent more in their first jobs than those who did not, the study found.
8. Create a virtual version of you
Online portfolios aren't just for people planning careers in journalism or the creative or visual arts. They can also provide a solid showcase to highlight your talent and experience. Your site should include your resume, references, writing samples, video clips and any other relevant materials, Milgram says.
College graduation is so close you can practically feel that mortarboard on your head. That day will be even sweeter if you feel totally prepared to make an impact in your chosen field.